Why do politicians use business jargon?

  • 6 February 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Grimacing at business buzzwords

Going forward. Leverage. Level playing field. In the business of politics, politicians increasingly use corporate buzzwords. Why, asks Sally Davies.

There was a line that stood out in Barack Obama's second inaugural address last month, but not in a carve-it-on-the-Lincoln-memorial sort of way.

Before 800,000 onlookers, the freshly anointed US President had just recited the famous passage from the American Declaration of Independence, proclaiming man's unalienable rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Then, his lips moving mesmerically on the jumbo TV screens that lined Washington's National Mall, he went on: "Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing."

The phrase "self-executing" emerged sounding peculiarly glib and corporate. It brought to mind so-called "self-executing clauses" in treaties or commercial contracts. Perhaps the term was a hangover from Obama's days as a law professor. To be fair, it echoed the reference to "self-evident" truths in the declaration itself.

But Obama's version seemed more technical, more hollowed-out of meaning. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy would have been unlikely to recognise such a slick and contemporary way of speaking.

Linguistic novelty ought to provoke suspicion when it stands in the way of precision and lucidity. Why would the president pluck an opaque phrase from the lips of lawyers and besuited executives to articulate the lofty principles on which his nation was founded? How could a truth be "self-executing", anyway?

American politicians have been salting their speech with business jargon for some time, says Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based political adviser and a former member of Bill Clinton's media team. It began in earnest in the early 1980s, he reckons, when the growth of global capitalism and the waning influence of labour unions lent corporate-speak a patina of prestige.

"Business language became a way of seeming neutral," Sheinkopf says.

With free-market principles gaining greater acceptance on both the left and the right sides of American politics, the lexicon of business schools - "outcomes", "bottom lines" and "results" - has become a way for politicians to appear authoritative and objective. He attributes the success of this terminology among politicians to the imperative to claim the middle ground, "now that we're a personality-driven polity, rather than an ideological polity".

It's quite possible that American politics has become simultaneously more focused on personality and more ideological at the same time, as the Tea Party insurgency and its consecration of figures such as Sarah Palin would suggest.

Douglas Schoen, another high-profile US pollster, thinks business-speak is a way of papering over this widening gap between the poles of political debate.

"At times of great partisanship, politicians want to talk in non-partisan rhetoric about partisan things. They use corporate language to outline a sparkly partisan agenda."

But US businesses don't think as a bloc or respond to a single set of verbal cues, notes Schoen.

"The rhetoric of Democrats is much more conversant with big business. Their politicians are far more likely to talk about leadership and management," he says, terms familiar to most CEOs. "Republicans speak the language of small enterprise, about 'removing regulation' and 'streamlining decision-making'."

As the New Republic's William Galston observed the day after Obama's second inauguration, large companies have more to lose if the Republicans' political brinkmanship plays out to its conclusion. The linguistic schism makes political sense.

Despite these worrisome incursions of corporate jargon, US speechifiers have reason to hope. They are partly protected from the malignancy of business-speak by the country's tradition of speaking out in defence of its founding values, forged during the high-minded Enlightenment era. Australia and the UK, however, have not been so lucky.

Recently, Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to deploy the language of truck and barter in his speech announcing a referendum on the country's membership of the European Union: "I do want a better deal for Britain, not just a better deal for Europe."

Charlie Beckett, the director of the Polis media think-tank at the London School of Economics and Political Science, chalks up the prevalence of this talk in Britain to politicians' desire to sound dynamic.

Corporate-sounding language been a feature of every administration since the prime ministership of Tony Blair, who sent his advisers to study the "messaging" tactics honed by the professional class of political and business consultants in the US. The idea is to sell government as one would sell a product, says Beckett - a project at which British spin-doctors may have to work harder, given the more demure tenor of the political conversation compared with America.

For politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, corporate terminology is also a way of ducking scrutiny by the media at a time when it is more searching and extensive than ever before. It is risk-averse language, Beckett notes. "Nowadays you can start conflicts, shift markets or have people burning down your embassies if you put a word out of place."

Business-speak helps leaders avoid firing up the public's passions or explaining policies that could prove controversial. The irony, says Beckett, is that they "are trying to play it safe, but it just reinforces the sense that they're careerists who have lost touch". By contrast, those who refuse to stoop to sanitised corporatese may cannily use their gaffes to burnish popular, straight-talking personas - as US Vice President Joe Biden and London Mayor Boris Johnson have managed to do.

Australia is a special case. Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her cabinet are notorious for their repetition of wonkish, managerial-sounding slogans. Her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, was a career bureaucrat, and known for his use of luminous phrases like "programmatic specificity".

In part, it's the fault of "the egalitarian spirit of this place", says Don Watson, a prolific Australian critic of business jargon and speechwriter to former Prime Minister Paul Keating. "In America there's a culture of high rhetoric. In Britain, language is preserved by tradition and by the institutions of that tradition."

But in Australia, politicians are particularly loath to put on airs, and so are unafraid to reach for the prosaic language of commerce when speaking before the public.

Americans may be find some consolation in these words. But some may have huddled a little closer inside their coats, out on the Mall last Monday, as Obama invoked the need to "harness new ideas and technology" and to "empower our citizens".

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